Valley Voices

When a forest falls in a legal vacuum, does it make no sound?

Cal Fire Unit Forester Len Nielson stands among dozens of felled dead trees along Road 274 in December.
Cal Fire Unit Forester Len Nielson stands among dozens of felled dead trees along Road 274 in December.

“Forests are the lungs of the Earth” is a long-standing and well-known analogy. Yet most of my good neighbors and friends in California’s southern and central Sierra Nevada Mountains – an area ravaged by an unprecedented tree-mortality crisis, with over 200 million trees dead – have nonetheless failed to carry the analogy through.

Namely, what the tobacco industry’s primary products have been for the lungs of smokers, the fossil-fuel industry’s primary products have been for the lungs of our planet, its forests.

In other regions of California, the analogies between the corporate misbehaviors of Big Tobacco and Big Carbon have not gone unnoticed.

The counties of Marin and San Mateo and the City of Imperial Beach have recently taken to court what the Imperial Beach suit describes as “37 major corporate members of the fossil fuel industry,” citing patterns of willful concealment, obfuscation and distortion about that industry’s products and their dangers, dating back to 1965.

These companies, writes Marin County District 3 Supervisor Kathrin Sears on her website, “were warned decades ago by their own scientists and experts that rising seas from a warming world would occur if the companies continued with business as usual. Yet the fossil fuel industry did nothing to reduce the impacts of burning oil, gas and coal.”

Sears writes further that fossil fuel companies instead “ripped a page from the tobacco lobby’s playbook and launched a multimillion-dollar public relations and lobbying campaign to discredit scientific evidence about climate change, even while, in some instances, investing to protect their own assets from the impact of rising seas.”

These lawsuits have been brought by shoreline communities and are primarily concerned with issues of projected sea level rise. None of these suits come from forestland counties and communities. This is strange, given the fact that in the forest lands the disaster is not “projected” or “potential.” It is already here, converting assets – our trees – into liabilities.

Those same trees, dead and dying en masse, have become a “public nuisance” and must be removed in order to reduce fire and other hazards. Yet that removal simultaneously gluts the timber market, rendering the trees of so little value that the cost of their disposal mostly comes at the individual property owner’s expense.

Why the silence on these costs? If a forest falls in a legal vacuum, does it make no sound?

Certainly part of the silence is political – and religious. My parents used to say that in polite company it was impolite to talk about politics or religion, “but you can always talk about the weather.” No more. According to sources ranging from the University of Texas Energy Poll to Pew Center research, the two most potent determinants of whether one accepts or denies climate science evidence are politics and religion.

Most forestland communities in California and throughout the West, like rural communities throughout the country, tend to be both more conservative and more religious than the population as a whole. In forestland communities, the massive tree mortality is endlessly rationalized as “just Mother Nature” –– and Father Culture bears no responsibility.

Asked about the causes of the Great Dying of the Trees, most of my neighbors agree with me on several: the drought, the population explosion among indigenous bark beetles, as well as too many “stems per acre” (due to the unintended consequences of forest management practices that have alternately included zero tolerance for both wildfire and logging).

When I tell my salt-of-the-earth neighbors that human activity is the necessary cause at the base of all those sufficient causes, however, they balk.

They recognize that flawed forest management practices are a human activity. They are not happy, however, when I point out that the bark beetle population explosion was precipitated by winter 2014-2015 (the warmest and driest in 500 years for our section of the Sierra), or that that warm, dry winter was part of a five-year drought, the worst in 1,200 years.

When I point out how all of that is linked to climate change induced by human activity, they will hear none of it. Among the majority of my neighbors, it is an unquestioned article of political and religious faith that the very idea of human-induced climate change must be at best a distraction, at least a hoax, and at worst an anti-American conspiracy.

Big Carbon’s disinformation campaign has succeeded by playing on people’s political and religious persuasions. By refusing to recognize the reality of climate change and the role of Big Carbon in bolstering its profits at everyone else’s expense, the majority of my neighbors in the Sierra have cut all of us off from legal and financial recourse that might help us all better shoulder the burden of the tree mortality disaster.

Just as Big Carbon took a page from Big Tobacco’s tactics, we who live and work in the forests should, like our fellow citizens on the coast, take a page from the anti-tobacco campaign’s book of tactics. We have nothing to lose but losing – more trees, and more money.

Shaver Lake resident Howard V. Hendrix, the author of six science-fiction novels, has held jobs ranging from janitor to fish hatchery manager to university professor and administrator.